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Van Zandt County, Texas
A Brief History
A Brief History of Van Zandt County, Texas
Gerald F. Kozlowski
The area occupied by Van Zandt County has long been the site of human habitation. Artifacts from the Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures have been found in the region, suggesting that it has been continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years. When the first Europeans arrived, the region was dominated by various Caddoan Indian tribes, but diseases, especially smallpox, ravaged these agrarian peoples by the time the first Anglo-American settlers arrived. During the 1820s and 1830s the eastern portion of the future county was occupied by refugee Cherokee Indians led by Chief Bowl. The Cherokees had a brief but colorful history in their new home. Chief Bowl was instrumental in preventing them from joining the Fredonian Rebellion. As a result the Republic of Mexico granted them title to lands in the area in 1827. In 1836 the government of Texas, then in revolt against Mexico, validated the claim. A treaty was signed but soon broken. President Mirabeau B. Lamar, known for his aggressive Indian policy, pressed the issue in 1839. In the battle of the Neches, fought over two days in the area that is now Henderson and southeastern Van Zandt counties, the Cherokees were decisively beaten and dispersed. The defeat of the Cherokees opened the area for Anglo-American colonization. Some settlement occurred prior to 1840. At least fifteen titles were granted in the area before this date. Luiz Ruiz, a Mexican, was the first documented settler. In 1844 Charles F. Mercer attempted to settle a vast area of northeastern Texas that included part of the area of future Van Zandt County. His agreement with the Republic of Texas was declared void by the legislature in 1845, but a few of the Mercer colonists obtained titles to the land as a result of the venture. Dr. W. P. King made the first surveys in the county in 1840, when he brought a group of men organized in Mississippi to buy land "between the three forks of the Trinity River." This party, finding their land certificates of small value under the Fraudulent Land Practice Act of 1840, bought some genuine certificates, but the men disbanded when they failed to locate the land. In the area of the Sabine, settlers cleared small acreages and grazed their livestock in the woods. The first post office was established by John Jordan in 1845 at Jordan's Saline, after he had blazed a trail from Nacogdoches and hauled two iron kettles to start his salt works. In 1845 William H. McBee established a gristmill and a sawmill three miles west of Loller's bridge at the site of Hamburg, established in 1850 by James Colthorp. This mill is said to have cut the logs that were used in the first courthouse in Dallas.
Van Zandt County was established by the legislature in 1848 from part of Henderson County and named for Republic of Texas leader Isaac Van Zandt. Sabine Lake (Jordan's Saline) was named the county seat, a crude log courthouse was built, and court was held for the first time in December 1848. In 1850 Wood County was carved out of Van Zandt County, and the Van Zandt county seat was moved to Canton. The 1850 census indicated that the recently established county had 1,348 residents. The overwhelming majority of the residents (92 percent) came from the states of the Old South, with the largest number from Tennessee and Alabama. In addition, there were a small number of recent immigrants from Europe, including a Norwegian colony settled by Johan Reierson at Four Mile Prairie in the southwestern portion of the county. In its early years the economy was largely subsistence farming, though some settlers also engaged in the salt trade. The salt in the area had been known to the Indians, who extracted it in the northeastern part of the county near the site of present Grand Saline. Jordan had a salt extraction operation at Jordan's Saline in 1845. Plantation farming did not prove profitable, and slave population dropped to 322 in a total population of 6,494 in 1860. A cotton gin, built at Hamburg by Burrel H. Hambrick in 1853, was moved to Tyler prior to the Civil War. Despite the small number of slaves, a majority of Van Zandt's citizens (181 of 308) voted for secession in 1861, and local men volunteered for service in the Confederate army in sizeable numbers. Many enlisted in the Tenth Texas Cavalry under Col. M. F. Lock, while others joined the Sixth Texas Cavalry, the Third Texas Cavalry, the Fifteenth Texas Cavalry, and the Eleventh Texas Infantry. Not all of the citizens, however, supported the Southern cause. Many of the Norwegian settlers, who were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, and a number of small farmers, who resented the power and influence of the state's large plantation owners, spoke out against the war. In 1864 three of the Unionists were lynched, and some of the Norwegian settlers were arrested, effectively quelling the opposition. The anti-slavery stance of this vocal minority, however, reportedly gave rise to the practice of calling the county the "Free State of Van Zandt." According to one story, the name arose when Sidney S. Johnson of the Canton Times wrote that one slave driver seeking a site in Texas to bring his slaves to safety said that he would rather settle in a free state than bring his slaves to Van Zandt because of its Unionist reputation.
During Reconstruction Van Zandt County, like much of the state, experienced a prolonged period of unrest. While county judges and prewar residents such as Samuel Q. Richardson and F. M. Hobbs attempted to carry out federal policies as well as possible, violence and political murders became all too commonplace. In 1868, near Jordan's Saline, outlaws killed a freedman and harassed several Unionists, and the same year vigilantes took over the courthouse briefly and escaped without arrest. The killings of several other blacks were attributed to the Ku Klux Klan or similar organizations. The county also experienced the effects of the postbellum economic depression. Land values dropped, and cash was hard to come by, while taxes remained relatively high. Subsistence farming continued to be the rule in the early postwar years, with corn and hogs constituting the leading products. Farms were generally small, typically worked by one to two families, and much of the county remained forested. As late as 1870 only twenty-eight of the 590 farms had more than 100 acres, and the total number of improved acres was only 22,195. What produce was sold outside the county was hauled overland 125 miles to Shreveport, Louisiana, because of the lack of a railroad connection. The situation began to change in 1873, when the Texas and Pacific Railway was completed through the northern portion of the county. The railroad opened up the county for settlement and provided much better access to outside markets, causing a rapid expansion of the farming economy. Between 1870 and 1880 the population nearly doubled, increasing from 6,494 to 12,619, and by 1890 the number of residents reached 16,225. The number of farms also grew rapidly during the same period, increasing to 1,607 in 1880 and 2,345 a decade later, as did the amount of improved acreage, which rose nearly five-fold between 1870 and 1890. The railroad, however, brought new problems as well. Wills Point, which grew up as railroad point, quickly emerged as one of the county's leading shipping centers. In 1877 an election was held for relocating the county seat from Canton to Wills Point. According to the county judge, C. W. Raines, "Several [voting] boxes were thrown out on account of irregularities and Wills Point was declared to be the county seat." The commissioners court ordered county records removed from Canton to Wills Point, but a force of 500 men led by Thomas Jefferson Towles marched on the town to bring the records back. Governor Richard B. Hubbard had to order troops into the county to restore order. A short time later the supreme court ruled the election void and ordered the records were returned to Canton, ending the so-called "Wills Point War."
The latter decades of the nineteenth century saw other forms of political unrest. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the county was buffeted by a succession of farm and associated political movements, including the Grange, Greenback Party, and the Farmers' Alliance. The People's Party, which ran on a strong pro-farmer platform, was particularly influential, and by 1892 the local chapter had 300 members. Van Zandt County was also the home base for Democratic reformer James Stephen Hogg, who had served as district attorney for the district including Van Zandt County from 1881 to 1884. More than 3,000 citizens gathered when he began his gubernatorial reelection campaign in Wills Point on April 21, 1892. The county's progressive tendencies were also reflected in other ways. For example, because of the county's strong Populist tradition and relatively small black population, Van Zandt was among the few counties in East and North Texas not to institute the White Primary, which kept blacks from voting in the spring elections. The decades of the 1880s and 1890s were a time of internal improvements. A public school system was inaugurated, and between 1887 and 1890 twenty-five new schools were constructed. Telephone service began 1892, and in 1896 a new courthouse was dedicated. The population grew and by 1900 was 25,000. With the continuing expansion of the population came a steady increase in the economy. The number of farms rose from 2,345 in 1890 to 4,208 by 1900, and the number of improved acres grew by nearly one-third, as more and more of the timberland was cleared. Livestock raising, which had long played a central role in the economy, became even more important at the end of the nineteenth century, as farmers began to raise large numbers of chickens, turkeys, and hogs. Cattle, however, remained the leading source of livestock revenue; by 1890 there were 24,990 head on the county's farms. The most significant cash crop at the end of the century remained corn, with 587,955 bushels harvested in 1890; oats (96,440 bushels produced in 1890) were a distant second. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries salt production also continued to be an important source of earnings. A number of companies, including the Lone Star Salt Company, the Southern Salt Company, and the Grand Saline Salt Company (later acquired by the Morton Salt Company) were active in the period from 1900 to 1920.
Today Van Zandt County is on Interstate Highway 20 fifty miles east of Dallas in the Claypan Area of northeastern Texas. The center of the county is near the county seat of Canton. Van Zandt County covers 855 square miles, with altitudes ranging from 421 to 573 feet. The Neches River rises in eastern Van Zandt County, and the Sabine River forms part of the northeastern county line. Creeks in the eastern portion of the county are part of the Trinity River watershed. The northwestern third of the county is undulating with gray to black, cracking clayey soils and slightly acidic, light-colored, loamy soils over deep clayey subsoils. The central third has light-colored soils with sandy surfaces over mottled, clayey subsoils. The southeastern third has gently rolling to hilly terrain surfaced by light colored loam over very deep, reddish, clayey subsoils. Natural resources include oil, gas, salt, iron ore, and clays. The eastern two-thirds of the county is in the Post Oak Savannah vegetation area, with tall grasses and post and black jack oak predominating. The western third is in the Blackland Prairies vegetation region, which is characterized by tall grasses, mesquite, and oak, and pecan and elm trees along streams. Wildlife includes eastern gray and fox squirrels, various species of bats and skunks, small herbivores such as gophers, mice, rabbits, and armadillos, as well as raccoons, white-tailed deer, opossums, bobcats, coyotes, and red and gray foxes. Frogs, toads, numerous snake species, including the poisonous copperhead, cottonmouth, coral, and rattlesnake, are found in abundance. The climate is subtropical humid with hot summers. The annual average precipitation is forty-three inches, and the average annual temperature is 65° F. Temperatures in January range from an average low of 33° to an average high of 54° F and in July range from 72° to 97° F. The growing season averages 250 days per year, with the last freeze in mid March and the first freeze in late November.
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